Activism and Alienation – Why I Feel Excluded

I’ve seen a trend over the years and it’s not a good one: activism is increasingly becoming a bubble, an echo-chamber where the only people listening are fellow activists.

There are reasons for this and one of the most telling ones is that the message is not reaching the audience. How often do you read an article or listen to a speech by an activist? If you’re not one yourself, the answer is probably close to never.

The big question is why?

For me (and I suspect for others too) there are a couple of elephant-in-the-room type problems. Activists seem to speak a different language, they bombard us with academic jargon and unfamiliar terms. Even the words that we recognize have subtle shifts in meaning so that understanding remains elusive. And then if we don’t use their preferred terminology or accept all of their ideological rhetoric as the gospel truth we get attacked. To put it simply, we are excluded.

What a great way to convince people to listen to you! Yes, that is sarcasm.

With far too many activists it’s a case of “my way or the highway”. You either interact with them entirely on their terms or you get bullied into submission or retreat. And most people won’t submit, so the audience dwindles until the only ones left are those who echo the activist’s ideology.

What’s the point of being an activist, of fighting for social justice, if in the end you are only preaching to the choir? The congregation has gotten fed up with your hellfire and brimstone and the pews are empty.

You’ll notice the overt religious imagery I’m using here. That’s deliberate. Running into an activist has a lot in common with running into a fundamentalist preacher. They are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that to question them in any way brings down their full wrath.

 

 

Last weekend there were the largest protest marches in US history, responding to the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. These protests were instigated by women in response to fears about the actions and intentions of the new administration.

But what were the majority of posts I saw on Facebook saying? Were they talking about the historic scale of the opposition? About the importance of standing up for rights that are visibly under threat?

No, the majority of posts I saw were basically saying that the majority of those protesting did not have valid concerns, that they should be ignored for not doing things the way the activists would prefer them to.

That because they were marching for reasons that meant something important to them as individuals but did not explicitly seek to include other groups they were somehow hostile to those other groups.

Now I’m not saying that ignorance and privilege are right or fair. But they exist. And unless activists engage with these people they will continue to exist. Shaming women who believe that sexual assault is wrong and got behind the “pussyhat” because “not all women have a vagina” is a shitty thing to do. For a lot of women the vagina (and associated organs) is something they strongly identify with as symbolic of their gender. Denouncing this as binary gender essentialism, or reducing people to their genitals doesn’t change the way so many women feel. It might not align with the activist’s beliefs but that doesn’t make it less real.

The culture of calling out and shaming people is wrong. It’s the tactics of the oppressor, the bully, of those we are trying to fight. It doesn’t advance the cause of understanding or acceptance. It’s just asking for them to turn around, say “Fuck you!” and decide you’re irrelevant. You might get kudos from fellow activists for being “on-message” but you’ve been counterproductive. You’ve stopped someone from listening to you before you even explain your point.

Bullying people into complying with your wishes and demands breeds resentment and opposition. If they comply they do so under duress, and as soon as they feel they are no longer under scrutiny they will actively undermine you. It’s about hearts and minds, not about coercing people by threat.

If we truly want to achieve equality, acceptance, understanding and all the other good stuff we need people to come to us willingly. Every person we alienate is a potential opponent, every person we support is a potential ally. We have a lot of opponents and some of them are very powerful. We need allies and supporters. We need to include them, not shame them and drive them away. Once they’re in the door we can educate them, teach them why some of the things they do might be problematic.

I’ve stopped interacting with activists online. It’s a toxic environment, like traversing a minefield where the slightest mis-step leaves you injured. I’m excluded, and I’m saying this as an autistic trans woman who ought to be feeling supported by rights activism. But I don’t feel supported. I feel threatened, unsafe in those spaces. I feel I have to watch every word I say or write, second-guess everything. And I’m not willing to do that – it takes energy I can’t spare to avoid any mistake that will bury me under an avalanche of bullying verbal assault.

I support many of the aims of activism for rights, but too many of the tactics are actively dangerous to my health and well-being. That’s why I am alienated. That’s why I am excluded. That’s what activism is getting wrong, for me and for others.

Toxic Masculinity and Suicide

I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.

I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.

Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.

I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.

I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.

I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.

But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.

That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.

You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.

Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.

You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.

It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.

Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.

That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”

There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.

Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.

Tolerance and Teaching

This world needs more tolerance.

It’s getting to the point where you can’t express an opinion without somebody immediately jumping on you and shouting you down.

I get that not everybody will agree with me. I don’t understand or know every nuance of every subject. Sometimes I make mistakes, or fail to express my meaning clearly. Sometimes it’s simply an opposing perspective.

But in this hair-trigger, offence-taking, call-out culture there is no place for uncertainty, mistakes, or a lack of clarity. One foot wrong in this social minefield and the dust won’t settle for days!

I get the anger, I really do. I see people repeat the same old misinformation again and again: whether it’s vaccines or immigration or any number of other subjects. It’s frustrating.

But if I were to attack everybody who says something I disagree with or find problematic, I would be doing neither side any favors. I see it this way: either a person is going to listen or they are not.

If they aren’t going to listen to my argument then however forcefully I make it I won’t reach them. If they might listen, then shouting and bullying them will only make them defensive and unwilling to listen any further.

I know that when I first started writing about autism I was on a steep learning curve. At first I was pretty ignorant, uninformed. I invested my time in learning as much as I could, interacting with people through their blogs.

In the early days my terminology was less than perfect; there was more I didn’t understand than I did. I dread to think of the reaction I would get today from some people I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere!

But luckily the people I interacted with were patient and forgiving. Tolerant of “newbie” mistakes. So my investment of time and effort in learning about autism was worth my while.

If I’d been bullied for things like person-first language (“person with autism”) or for innocently using problematic phrases that are common in colloquial speech, I think I’d have disengaged from the autism “community”.

I don’t know that I have contributed a whole lot myself, but I know for sure that I would know a heck of a lot less about myself and autism.

So, tolerance. Be forgiving of others’ mistakes. Try to help them understand better, give them a chance to learn and improve.

Some may say that it’s not their job to teach everyone they encounter. But if not, then whose job is it? Do you seriously think everybody will spend time learning as much as possible before they begin to interact publicly?

By putting myself out there in public spaces as autistic and trans I have made myself, intentionally or not, into a representative of those identities. I owe it to myself and everybody else who shares those identities to do what I can to increase people’s knowledge and understanding.

The best teachers are patient, compassionate, and understanding as well as knowledgeable. What use is knowledge that is not shared? What use is a message that nobody will listen to?

This post was originally posted on my personal Facebook wall.

Autism and Gender Variance: Is There a Cause for the Correlation?

This is a guest post on a subject very close to my own heart that I commissioned from Sparrow Rose Jones via this Fiverr gig. Sparrow is well-known as the author of the blog Unstrange Mind and the book No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, which I am taking the opportunity here to recommend to anybody who has yet to encounter them.

Regular readers will know I hardly ever publish guest posts or reblog, but I made one of my few exceptions (my blog, my rules) because I have long valued Sparrow’s writing on subjects that I care deeply about and wanted very much to take the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the intersection of autism and gender. And now, over to Sparrow…

Continue reading

Holding Out For A Hero

It’s really hard to be inspired by people. To find somebody you can look up to as a role model. A hero. Hey, I’m hard to satisfy but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop looking.

What am I looking for in a hero? I need somebody I can relate to. Someone whose life has enough parallels to my own that I can identify with them. And I’ve got to say that as an autistic trans woman that’s a hell of a tall order!

There are people I admire greatly. Lynn Conway and Sophie Wilson are both incredibly talented engineers who are also trans women. But the very fact of their exceptional contributions to electronic engineering and computing sets them too far above anything I could dream of achieving.

It seems everywhere I look my candidates for hero have talents I do not share. Fantastic autistic writers like Sparrow Rose Jones, M Kelter and Michael Monje Jr. Outspoken activists and advocates like Morénike Umoye, Fiona O’Leary and Lydia X. Z. Brown.

I dismiss myself as an average wordsmith, an armchair supporter of my own rights, somebody who would tentatively raise her hand but would never be the first to raise her voice.

No, I found my own hero closer to home. There is one person I have known, and known very well, that I continue to look up to and admire. Someone who set an example with her own life to the extent that when faced with a dilemma I can ask myself, “What would she do?”

It’s no big surprise. That person was my mother. Of all the people I have known she was the one I want to emulate. Such generosity and love towards others, and yet with an uncompromising strength at her core. Even at the end of her life, after years of suffering with a brain tumor that left her unable to care for herself at all, she had moments of snappiness but still managed to think of others before herself.

So I do have a hero. I do have someone to look up to. And every time I fall short of her example (which is more often that I’d like to admit) I think about her.

She didn’t give birth to me but I was her child. She loved me unconditionally, always believed in me and supported me. Nothing in her power was too much trouble for her if I needed it. If I was with her I would always be safe. And if I ever need to consider what would be the “right” thing to do I need only think, “What would mum do?”

Edge Cases, or Why Binary Categories Are Broken

People have a habit of putting everything they encounter into categories. It makes language-based communication possible. If I tell you about the tree at the end of the road you can imagine a scene: you know what a tree is, what a road is, and how the two fit in relation to each other. But you don’t imagine the same scene that I have in mind.

When I write about an older man with a deep, resonant voice, do you think of Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, Richard Burton, Morgan Freeman? They all fit the description, the category. Even though the terms I used are pretty vague: what does “older” mean? Older then you? Than me? Over 50? 60? Showing signs of age such as gray hair or lines on his face?

“Older” must be meaningful in this context or else why would I use it? You see, everybody knows what it means, but you’d not be able to find a consensus, a common definition. Where do you draw the line between older and not-older? It’s a simple binary choice after all.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that older means older than me. That’s easy, right? Oh, you want to know how old I am? Well, I’m not old: I’m middle-aged. So maybe someone who’s close to my age shouldn’t be referred to as older. Let’s change the definition of older to mean an age ten or more years greater than mine. Oh, you still want to know my age?

I guess this is more difficult than it first seemed. Welcome to the territory of the edge case, the point at which we cut from one category to another. The problem arises because our category, older, can’t be defined unambiguously. There is no clear boundary between older and not-older.

That’s not to say that older is useless: it works well as a convenient shorthand, a stereotype. It’s just that the degree to which it applies varies. Morgan Freeman is an older man; George Clooney is less so, Ryan Reynolds probably isn’t, and Daniel Radcliffe is almost certainly not.

And yet older seems such a simple concept. As simple as tree or road. Thinking about trees, you know what a tree is, right? As opposed to a shrub or a bush, or some other plant? And a road: it’s not a freeway, or a track. Right? Or not? There’s some overlap: these terms we use casually, that we understand the meaning of very well, nevertheless are fuzzy around the edges.

We learn the meanings through examples, archetypes. A collection of instances that we are told belong to the category. It’s not about definitions such as you find in a dictionary: those are mere simplified descriptions of what most of us mean when we use a word. When you think about trees you don’t give much, if any, thought to the definition: you just know what a tree is.

It’s the same principle when it comes to gender. You learn about men and women as two mutually-exclusive categories, and you’re taught that everybody fits into one or the other. But just as with any other category, gender has edge cases. There is such a range of variation among humans that there is no characteristic, or set of features, that unambiguously assigns a person to either a male or female gender.

Yes, there are physical characteristics that apply to the majority: these are what are used at birth to decide whether to write M or F on a birth certificate. And for most people that’s fine. But there are edge cases. People who don’t have distinct physical gender characteristics, or people who look like they are male (or female), but are actually female (or male) or neither, or both.

These edge cases, intersex and transgender people, are a minority but not an insignificant one: reliable conservative estimates put the number of transgender people at around 1 in 500, meaning that we account for roughly 15 million people around the world. As a comparison, that’s about the same as the number of Jews worldwide, and more than the population of Greece, Belgium or Sweden.

That’s a lot of people for whom the gender categories don’t properly work. These people exist; gender is an invention. Which do you think might be “wrong”? The sad fact is that there are a lot of people who think of gender, male or female, as absolute binary options: each person has to fit one or the other. Reality doesn’t work that way. It’s not neat or convenient.

Believe me, as a woman myself I’ve tried long and hard to come up with some objective criteria to define womanhood. And for every single characteristic I thought of there are exceptions. It’s not a matter of definitions, it’s a matter of knowing. I have encountered many examples of women in my life and they have shaped my understanding of what a woman is. The same goes for every person who identifies as a woman. It’s an understanding that transcends words. So that is how I know I am a woman.

Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Over the past year, and especially since the publication of Switched On by John Elder Robison, there has been a lot of attention around a therapy called TMS (or rTMS–Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation).

It’s something I have deep reservations about but others have written passionately and eloquently on the subject. What I want to consider is why somebody would choose to undergo such a therapy that literally changes their mind.

I’m no stranger to the negative feelings that arise when considering the gap between how I perceive myself and what I see when I look in the mirror: that’s a big factor in my gender dysphoria.

I also know first-hand how it feels to be teased and ridiculed for hand flapping, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, unusual speech patterns and eclectic interests. I’ve had life-long difficulty making and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and I have times where I feel keenly the lack of people with whom I feel comfortable opening up about my problems and feelings.

I understand the drive to make physical changes to one’s body. After all, I’m in the process of seeking treatment to modify my own body, bringing it into closer alignment with what I see in my mind by erasing or concealing male characteristics and developing female ones.

There are two parts to my gender dysphoria. First there is my need to have other people respond to me as a woman, reinforcing my gender identity. Second there is my need to see my own body physically match the mental image I hold.

So as a trans woman I am actively seeking treatment to make changes to my body. This is in contrast to my feelings about my autism. Both my gender identity and my autistic identity go to the very heart of who I am.

The thing is, although I will happily modify the physical characteristics of my body I wouldn’t consider altering my mind. My neurology is inextricably tied to my identity: I feel that changing my mind would make me into a different person.

There’s a line there. I’ve put a foot over that line a few times, testing the water so to speak. I’ve experienced the effects of drugs that affect the workings of the brain: alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, SSRIs (anti-depressant).

Some of them have positive aspects. For example, alcohol reduces my social anxiety. But there are negatives too: I make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol because it inhibits my self-control and risk-aversion: I’ve gotten myself into some dangerous situations as a result.

Speed (amphetamine) left me unable to concentrate, marijuana was relaxing but caused mild hallucinations and a degree of paranoia. The SSRIs reduced the intensity of my emotions, leaving me feeling numb: in the end I had trouble focusing and engaging with things in my life.

These were all temporary effects: my mind returned to its usual functioning state in time for which I was grateful. You see, I wasn’t myself when under the influence of any of these drugs.

I guess my point is that given the complexity of the human brain and the way its many regions interact it is not possible to adjust one aspect without affecting others. Just as a particular drug affects a small number of electro-chemical interactions in the brain with wider-reaching side-effects, so a therapy like rTMS that alters a small region must cause knock-on changes across the entire organ.

My opinion is that it is not like tuning an engine, a relatively simple system with a limited degree of interconnection and feedback between its components. It’s more like introducing a foreign species into an existing ecosystem. The effects can be slow to manifest, and predictions are error-prone due to the complexity and chaotic nature of the system.

There is no way to know what other effects rTMS would have. It might reduce my social anxiety, but even if that was all it did it would make me respond differently to people I interact with (like alcohol). And if my thoughts and behavior are changed then I’m no longer the same person.

I don’t want to change who I am: I’m comfortable with my identity as an autistic trans woman with all that entails. Changing my body doesn’t affect my personality, my thoughts: I remain me. Changing my mind makes me into somebody else. I would lose the essence of what makes me this particular unique individual, and the thought of that fills me with dread.

This leads me to suppose that for somebody to even contemplate such a thing they must not like who they are. Internalized self-hatred, blaming their neurology for what they see as their failings. It’s like body dysmorphia projected onto the ego, the sense of self. The antithesis of neurodiversity’s principles; an inability or refusal to accept one’s differences.

I see this as a result of thinking colored by the medical model of autism that sees it in terms of pathological deficits, as opposed to the social model which instead looks to society’s failures to provide suitable accommodations and acceptance as the causes of disability.

There’s nothing wrong with my mind: I have no reason to change it. I can’t say the same for the society I live in.

School Reports and My Past

I often look through my old school reports. It’s been difficult the last couple of years because they all talk about Ben and refer to that boy, someone who, although it used to be me I no longer recognize.

I recognize the words and know they refer to me, but whenever I read that name or those male pronouns I feel a cognitive dissonance. It was me, but at the same time (and strongly) it is not me. Not the person I am now.

And yet… I still open that old folder and read those words.

IMAG0283

IMAG0280IMAG0281The subjects (from top to bottom) were Chemistry, Design, English, French and Geography.

I can’t emphasize enough how hard it is to read “he” and “his”, or to see “B” or “Ben”. Imagine reading something about you that refers to you as someone else. Not only that, but someone of a different gender!

I know these reports are mine, I know they are referring to me, but I’m a woman called Alexandra; these reports about some boy called Benjamin feel emotionally like they’re about someone else although I know rationally that they refer to me.

I’ve had conflicted thoughts about my daughter. I know she has a mother and a father, but I am not comfortable describing  myself as her father. I’m one of her two parents, sure, but I can’t bring myself to think of myself in such male terms as a father.

She calls me Alex, not “Dad”, which I’m happy about: I feel very uncomfortable with the male implications of father but I also recognize that I am not her mother. There’s a word missing from English, one to describe a female parent who did not give birth to the child.

To say it hurts is such an understatement. It tears my heart to pieces, leaves me crushed and beaten. I tell people she’s my daughter but I feel inhibited from saying that I’m her “parent” because I can’t say I’m her mother and I don’t believe “father” is appropriate.

Technically speaking I am her father, but emotionally I can’t accept that label. I can’t accept anything that suggests a male identity I don’t identify with. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find an answer to my conundrum.

Looking Beyond The Binary

Like the overwhelming majority of people I was immersed from my earliest days in a world divided into two. It is so pervasive that it doesn’t seem at all strange; most people never have cause to even think about it.

In the blue corner we have everything male. Boys, men, anything electronic or mechanical, big or loud. Football. Beer.

And in the pink corner we have the supposed polar opposite, female. Soft, delicate, dainty, quiet. Embroidered cushions and flowers. Ballet. Prosecco.

Take a moment to think about how much of the world is seen in terms of masculine or feminine. It’s even ingrained in many languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian.

Who do you see when you imagine people in various jobs? Flight attendant, nurse, engineer, bricklayer, plumber, mechanic, secretary, truck driver. Are the examples you think of primarily male or female?

How about when you see a person at the mall or in the street? Do you find yourself automatically thinking of them as she or he? Making an unconscious decision about their gender simply based on a quick glance, a fleeting impression?

It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard not to. And when somebody doesn’t seem to fit into either category we can find ourselves wondering, “Are they…?” Does that make you uncomfortable? How would you address them?

Good news: there’s a solution. It’s not easy because you have to make an effort and learn to see things differently. But you can teach yourself to look at people without the need to put them in a box labeled M or F.

Go on, try it. Watch the TV, scroll through Facebook, whatever, and deliberately keep an open mind about the gender of everyone you see there. Avoid “he” and “she” in your thoughts; use the neutral “they” by default.

After a while you find that it becomes easier, the conscious effort becomes an unconscious reflex. And you discover something unexpected: you still see aspects that suggest male or female, but your overall impression is a blend of the two. You see both simultaneously!

And it strikes you that the whole dyadic division is an illusion, a pernicious lie.